Why Some People Just Won't Commit
The power struggles of "ambivalationships."
Posted Dec 13, 2016
Many people are quite clear about their desire for a romantic partnership that has a sustainable, long-term future. For some, it is a great need—an all-consuming endeavor that occupies a good deal of their time and energy. Others would like to have a romantic partner, but treat the pursuit as a desirable life option that may or may not occur. And still others are simply not interested in a permanent partnership; they prefer single status and live accordingly.
Problems can arise for certain individuals—and the people they invite or allow into their lives—when they are unsure or confused about their needs. These people may send mixed messages to those with whom they develop relationships. Interestingly, they tend to find partners who seem to accept their ambivalence, rather than demand clarity and relationship definition early on.
Cynthia and her long-term boyfriend Eddie began dating in 2012 and moved in together in 2014. Cynthia, now 35, has long assumed that she and Eddie would be together permanently, get married, and eventually have a family. But Eddie, it seems, was quite comfortable with the existing arrangement and, despite occasional comments about their future together, showed few signs of wishing to advance the relationship. When Cynthia began to feel concerned about their union, she discovered that while she wanted a spouse, Eddie was quite content to have what we came to call "a permanent girlfriend.”
Similarly, Sara and James have been together for four years and are treated—and treat themselves—like “an old married couple,” except for the fact that they are not, in fact, married, and that topic is a hot-button issue for them. James, 45, has never been married but is eager to become Sara’s husband. Sara, twice-divorced and wary, is reluctant to “do this again” for fear that it might wind up like the first two and be a “third failure.” She encourages James to remain interested in the possibility of eventual marriage as the natural destination of their relationship, but otherwise tends to resist his efforts to press the subject, let alone make plans to secure their future together. When James says, “I love you and I want to be with you forever," Sara tends to respond with comments like, “Isn’t what we have good as is? Why mess with success by getting married?” or, “Why don’t we just leave well enough alone?”
Both Eddie and Sara are in what I call ambivalationships. They want the relationship, and even seem to want it to be permanent. They act and feel like half of a typical marital relationship, and yet they resist the conventional route that long-term couples generally travel, i.e., marriage. When I have the opportunity to talk with people like Eddie and Sara, I hear things like, "If I don't get married, it's easier and cheaper to leave if I ever feel the need to do so," or "I'm never really sure about the 'forever' thing, so why risk it by agreeing to a life sentence?"
These tend to be people whose past romantic relationships have ranged from disappointing to disastrous; therefore, they are reluctant to arrange the next possible "failure." Sometimes they are people for whom life, in general, has been a series of unresolved issues and existential confusion and so they may not be able to commit to anything, let alone a romantic partner.
By many measures, there is nothing inherently wrong in maintaining such a status quo—except that such relationships involve a power imbalance between the two people involved. And that has the potential to eventually create a crisis or erode the health and welfare of the partnership.
Cynthia and James, both of whom are obviously interested in permanence via marriage, are basically powerless to influence change in their respective partners other than by putting the relationship on probation or just ending it—steps they are loathe to take. Eddie and Sara, by virtue of their ambivalence about permanence via marriage, therefore have the power to determine what happens next, a situation that often leads to anger and resentment on the part of the waiting partner.
A dilemma facing many people in relationships like these is that discussing its status during its early phases may seem presumptuous and guarantee-seeking—the other partner may not be ready to discuss, let alone make a commitment. This often leads to the issue going underground and being avoided until much later—sometimes even years later. However, the concerned partner might want to predict the future of the relationship before making significant decisions like whether to live together or remain living separately.
Clearly, it is helpful, respectful, considerate—even humane, one might argue—for someone in a significant long-term relationship to resolve any ambivalence they have about changing its status, especially when they are aware of the wishes and feelings of their partner. Too many romantic partnerships linger in a state of uncertainty, with one member living ambivalently while resisting or avoiding discussions about the future. Both parties have a responsibility to see that the state and fate of their union is handled openly and honestly, leading to mutual understanding and resolution—one way or the other.